The Artificial White Man
Essays on Authenticity
by Stanley Crouch
Basic, 244 pp., $24
IT'S EASY TO DISMISS Stanley Crouch, and he's got only himself to blame. Once upon a time, Crouch was a young lion, the anointed heir to Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray and a brilliant columnist for the Village Voice. More recently, along with Wynton Marsalis, he's been a key force behind the controversially conservative series of jazz programs at Lincoln Center.
But his column in the Daily News, which too often reads as though it has been hastily dictated, his rather unfairly panned novel called Don't the Moon Look Lonesome, and his propensity for literally slapping down other thinkers, most recently Dale Peck, have all tarred his reputation. Coasting along as a minor celebrity and professional crank, Crouch has made himself easy to ignore, which is a shame, because when he bothers he's amongst our finest critics.
All these Crouches--the iconoclast and the blowhard, the visionary and the hack--are on display in The Artificial White Man, a series of essays on books and films loosely grouped around the idea of cultural miscegenation as the catalyst of the American experiment. "Integration," argues Crouch, "may be the most important theme in literature. That is all writers have ever talked about: how two things quite different or quite seemingly different can be brought together."
But in place of the more complex question of how people and cultures engage one another, Crouch argues, a post-Watergate era of close examination has eroded our traditional institutions, and our popular culture now "defines authenticity from the bottom up," embracing "the neo-Sambo" motif of hip-hop videos that reduce blacks to the manic-depressive ravings of the unhinged adolescent, a token counter to bourgeois, "white" values.
Crouch rips into those in whose work "Hemingway's dictum of writing about what you know has become an excuse for avoiding risks." The title essay takes on David Shields's Black Planet, a truly depressing and well-received paean to the noble savages of the NBA, especially Gary Payton. Shields's "plantation of dreams" is fantastically sterile--he fantasizes about taking his wife as a black man would, is pleased to suggest that his daughter raises "more hell than usual when she's wearing her Sonics outfit," and so on. But where Irving Howe argued in World of Our Fathers that Jewish vulgarity helped strip away the pretensions of suburban life, Shields sees blacks as nothing more than the reductive fantasy of the ghetto fabulous, a vicarious antidote to his own empty whiteness. Shields's Jewishness, which he glosses over as merely a sort of whiteness, is entirely hollowed out, and he attempts to fill that void with his vapid negrophilia.
This, then, is the artificial white man, without cultural, ethnic, or religious values of his own, eager instead to celebrate and subsist on an imagined primitive and vital "life-force." When Shields expresses disappointment after Dennis Rodman fails to make a freak of himself in a particular game, Crouch asks, "Is anarchic behavior the best response to the weight that civilization imposes on us all? Is this the most we have to offer? Don't ask Shields."
In this essay, and in his nuanced appreciations of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, Crouch is at his finest. But too often he comes unhinged, sounding weirdly like the thuggish rappers he lambastes, as when he accuses unnamed critics of, among other things, "punking out," "hiding under the bed," and "walking beneath a flag of white underwear stained fully yellow by liquefied fear"--and that's all in one sentence.
In his acknowledgments, Crouch thanks Chrisona Schmidt, "perhaps the Western world's fastest copy editor," which might not be the praise it seems given the volume's numerous typos, from "Juan Luis Borges" in the first paragraph to the disruptive repetition of paragraphs in Crouch's seventy-two-page ode to Quentin Tarantino, which is by far the volume's lengthiest and windiest essay.
Such quibbles aside, though, Crouch's concern with cultural exchange is such that he finds in Tarantino's junk culture mix of cheerfully sadistic violence, movie and popular references, gutter language, and interracial relations a genius that is certainly not there.
As he has it in his twice-repeated coda, ours is "a popular culture that defines itself by borrowing, extending, appropriating, and defiling. Above all, no one understands better than [Tarantino] the many miscegenations that make our modern world the unprecedented things that it is." This is a fine observation about the nature of our modern times, but it takes Crouch away from the other axis of the book, that "with the fall of the high, the energy from below has been elevated in our reimaginings of traditions. A purity has been projected onto the bottom." Fellow iconoclast Armond White is more astute on Tarantino's culpability on this second point when he says, plainly, that "QT made sadism hip and sent it 'round the world."
Although Crouch's observations at times miss the mark, his broad argument is both vital and serious. Earlier in the book, he points out the obvious and unspoken--that our literature has become so bloodless that television has far more to say about the meat of America. No matter how easy Crouch makes it to dismiss him, it's far more difficult to dismiss his ideas.
Harry Siegel is editor in chief of New Partisan.com.